A century ago, Great Britain’s poorest children were shipped off to work in Canada and when they were called to serve during the First World War, more than 4,000 answered. Nearly a quarter of them were killed.
Now, for the first time, the war service of the British Home Children is being honoured this Remembrance Day with a wreath laid at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
Between 1868 and the 1930s, more than 100,000 destitute children in Great Britain were shipped off to Canada. An estimated two-thirds of the Home Children, as they were known, were under the age 14.
One of them was Winnipeg’s Charles Reaper — the last survivor of the historic Battle of Vimy Ridge. He died in 2003 in Winnipeg, at the age of 103. On Monday in Ottawa, he will be remembered with the other British Home Children and their descendants who served Canada.
"I think it’s great," said Winnipeg’s Roberta Horrox. Her grandfather, James Towner, was an orphan plucked off the streets of London and sent to Canada in 1900 at age 10. He was taken in by the Barnardo Society in London with his sister, Florence, and younger brother, George. The Bernardo Society was one of 50 "child-saving" organizations in Victorian England that sent children to build its colonies in places such as Canada at that time, said Horrox.
In Manitoba, at the Barnardo Industrial Farm near Russell, more than 1,660 British kids were trained as agricultural workers from 1888 to 1907.
Thousands more were sent to work on Manitoba farms where, in the late 1800s, there was a huge demand for labourers, especially at harvest time.
When Towner became a man and war broke out, he wanted to serve, said Horrox, a Winnipeg history buff.
"My grandfather tried to join but his feet were too crippled."
Many of the British Home Children did serve, she said.
"A lot signed up right at the beginning of the war," said Horrox. It may have been so they could return to England and look for family members or because they felt they had nothing to lose or nobody who cared about them, she said. Close to one-quarter who fought for their new country, Canada, didn’t survive the First World War, she said.
"Nobody knows why so many went or why so many were lost."
The Ontario East British Home Child Family organization is sponsoring the Remembrance Day wreath. The organization says its mission is to "give a voice to all the British Home Children who walked silently among us."
The Canadian government has never apologized for that sad chapter in this country’s immigration history, said Horrox. A petition calling on the federal government to issue an apology is being prepared to present to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, she said.